Speaking in Tongues begins with an ordinary first day of public school kindergarten—except that the teacher speaks only Chinese. Most of her primarily white and Asian American students look confused but curious; a few nod knowingly. They are all in a language immersion class, where, from day one, they will receive 90% of their instruction in Cantonese. Remarkably, their school will test first in English and math among their district's 76 elementary schools.
The film's four protagonists come to language immersion programs for very different reasons. Jason is a first generation Mexican-American whose immigrant family embraces bilingualism as the key to full participation in the land of opportunity. Durrell is an African-American kindergartner whose mom hopes that learning Mandarin will be a way out of economic uncertainty and into possibility. Kelly is a Chinese-American recapturing the Cantonese her parents sacrificed to become American. Julian is a Caucasian 8th grader eager to expand his horizons and become a good world citizen. Together, they represent a nexus of challenges facing America today: economic and academic inequities, de facto segregation, record numbers of new immigrants, and the need to communicate across cultures. Using a verité story-telling approach, the film follows our characters as they enter the portal of language and open their minds to new ways of thinking and being in the world. In a time of globalization and changing demographics, bilingualism offers them more than an opportunity to join the global job market. Language becomes a metaphor for breaking down barriers between ourselves and our neighborsâ€”be they around the corner or across the world.
While the kids grow in ease and skill with their second tongue, the grown-ups argue. Durrell orders his first Chinatown meal in Mandarin; an uncle at a family dinner prasies bilingualism, citing the needs of the global economy. Kelly learns traditional cooking from her Chinese-speaking grandma; yet her great aunt scoffs at any form of bilingual education, citing tax burdens. Jason becomes the first in his family to read, write, and graduate elementary school; meanwhile at a school enrollment fair, a concerned Latino father asks where his daughter can learn more English. Julian travels to China and bargains for clothes in Mandarin at a Beijing marketplace; an angry Chinese dad at a school meeting bellows, "We are in America! We need English!"
To explore these contentious debates at the national level, Speaking in Tongues turns to Ling-chi Wang, a community activist who pioneered efforts to establish multilingual education in the United States. He takes us on a brief You Tube tour of the national discourse: critics bemoan a loss of national identity and warn of an impending Balkanization of the United States, while others warn of the national security risks of having too few Arabic speakers. Lingchi laments the nation's stubborn attachment to monolingualism, a phenomenon that masks deeper social tensions about diversity and difference. His rallying cry is that the United States is a nation whose linguistic richness is among its greatest assets. Employers need multilingual skills, universities spends millions teaching foreign languages, and our national security apparatus pours millions into teaching "strategic languages." Yet the U.S. congress routinely considers "English-only" legislation, and 31 states have already passed such laws.
But Ling-chi doesn't have time for hand wringing; A gavel brings us to a packed school board meeting where he's spearheading an initiative to offer every public school child in San Francisco the opportunity that Jason, Durrell, Kelly, and Julian have. Will one city's bold experiment become a model for transforming Americans into global citizens?